Art of Story Peru 2022 - Part 2

Updated: Oct 28



After our time in Umasbamba, it was time to head towards the mountains. We would spend the next four days on the Ancascocha Trek, a lesser known high route through the Andes that holds some of the most uniquely beautiful terrain I've ever experienced.


From Umasbamba, we drove to Ollantaytambo, the town that serves as the launch point for most Andean treks as well as accessing Machu Picchu. We spent the afternoon exploring the town and learning about its rich history.



That evening, after dinner, I realized something was wrong. The guinea pig liver was beginning to take it's toll. It started with a stomach ache, and turned into a full night of being hunched over the toilet expelling everything in my digestive system. It was pure misery. I could barely sleep, and I knew the next day was supposed to be the first of the trek. As painful as the sickness was, it was almost more painful to think that I may have to leave my own group the following day.


 

Day 1


When morning came, things seemed to have settled a bit, though I was still in a haze of exhaustion from the ordeal. Luckily, I was the only member of my group who was affected. After talking with Rafael, I decided that I was going to attempt the trek and hope for the best. I felt terrible, but not terrible enough to not try.


We made the drive from Ollantaytambo to a small, high altitude village that serves as the starting point of the Ancascocha trek. We enjoyed breakfast with our team, packed our gear, and prepared to start walking.



We set off on the long, winding trail and made our way up the valley, taking in views of the mountainous terrain, which was becoming more and more vertical all around us. The valley walls were heavily vegetated, almost jungle-like, and low clouds rolled over their ridges.. A few miles in, we came to an incredible waterfall that cascaded out of the rocks high above our heads. The spray was refreshingly chilly, and we spent a while at the base of the falls creating photos and resting before we continued our upward journey.



Thankfully, the sickness hadn't come back with the vengeance of the night before, but I was still battling the fatigue. The hike was almost entirely uphill at elevation, and I was battling for a lot of those steps. Even still, I felt like I had it in me to continue. I had a feeling it was going to be well worth the struggle.



We hiked on, passing through the fascinating ruins of an Incan water temple on top of the falls, several mountain villages (which are only accessible to the inhabitants on foot or horseback), and miles of trail, winding its way up the valley.



During lunch, we debated whether we would carry on up and over the pass to a high camp, or stop where we were for the night. My physical condition moved me to want to stay put, but having been here once before, I knew the view that awaited us at the pass, and I knew that we would be making it there right at sunset. It was an easy choice. We continued hiking.


The valley began to widen as we ascended, the views behind us were broader, the vegetation was smaller and more sparse, and the air grew crisp. The light of the late afternoon took on a golden hue, and our anticipation for sunset increased with every step.



Then, Rafael (pictured directly above) introduced us to an interesting liquid known as Agua Florida (flower water). It's essentially a mix of water and a bunch of flower-derived oils that helps with altitude sickness and fatigue. He had us rub it into our hands, put our faces into our hands, and then breathe as deeply as possible through our noses. Our reactions were probably hilarious for him, as it was one of the STRONGEST smells we had ever experienced. But hey, it actually worked! We all felt a bit rejuvenated and pushed on towards the top of the pass.



At the top of the pass, the view that awaited us was something truly spectacular. The 19,000 foot Nevado Veronica dominated the horizon, it's glaciated subpeaks sprawling for miles off of it's western flank. Clouds swirled around both the mountain and the valley below us, creating a scene that felt completely otherworldly.



In this moment, I knew I'd made the right choice. All the pain and exhaustion faded and I stood in complete awe of the majesty unfolding before me. It was a special feeling, knowing just how much work had gone into this moment. To witness this sunset alongside my Baker, Joey, Nick, and Rafael felt like a legendary culmination of everything I'd been working on for years of my life.


As we continued our hike towards camp, the sky turned to lavender and deep blue with a soft yellow glow gracing the horizon. I told the the team to hike on ahead and stand on a ridge, I had an idea for a photo. The panorama I created that night is possibly my favorite adventure photograph I've ever made, and I believe it accurately depicts the Eden-like glory of how that evening felt.



Ecstatic and exhausted, we made the final push to camp, where I promptly collapsed into my tent after a 10.5 mile hike with 5000 vertical feet of gain on 1.5 hours of sleep and food poisoning from a guinea pig's liver. Worth it? 10000%.



 

Day 2


The next morning, I decided to go on a sunrise hike. I'd been wanting to watch sunrise over this area since the last time I visited, and given my early bedtime the night before, I figured why not? I spotted a small peak that was relatively close and hiked up in the early, pre dawn hours while everyone else in camp was still asleep.


I'd never seen a sunrise quite like this one. The way the colors interacted with the clouds was absolutely ethereal, and only lasted for a short time before clouds blocked out the sun and created a rare post-sunrise blue hour effect.




I found myself wondering if anyone had ever stood and watched sunrise from this point before. The feeling of standing in a beautiful place like this one is one of the most freeing emotions I've ever held, and I relished it completely on this morning.



Back down at camp, the others were up and around getting ready for breakfast. I managed to get down a small amount of food before making ready to break camp and start this day's portion of the trek, a hike through wide, sweeping valleys from 12-13,000 feet that would conclude at a high mountain lake.



We set out mid-morning, making our way through the mountainous terrain. A low layer of clouds had set in, swirling around all the peaks and adding a sense of mystery to the environment. The peaks were obscured and we were left to wonder what was up there in the clouds. Occasionally, we'd get a short glimpse of a peak poking through the clouds.




These conditions made it feel like we were walking in a dream. The trail took up and down through several smaller valleys throughout the day on a faint, winding trail. Shortly before lunch, we descended a long way down to the floor of a larger valley where a pristine river flowed. It was here that we met two very unique individuals.


There's a few families that live in this valley, and one of them happened to be around! Rafael asked if I wanted to stop and talk to them, an opportunity I was thrilled to accept. He called them over and we sat together outside their home, sharing cocoa leaves and some of our American snacks together. Through the course of our conversation, I discovered that these two had been living alone in these mountains for over 30 years, growing potatoes and raising animals. they told me that their favorite part of living so remotely is the quiet they get to experience away from civilization. They speak only Quechua, which is the non-written, native language of Peru.


This is Sismon Cabrara and Lucrecia Meza, along with their puppy:





After our wonderful conversation with these two, we hiked a short distance to the lunch tent, where our chef was hard at work cooking up some more delicious Peruvian Cuisine for us. Unfortunately, I slipped on a patch of loose ground and put my hand directly into a cactus, so I spent lunch picking needles out of my hand as well as eating.





It was time for the final push to camp for the night, and we set off for one last uphill section that would take the rest of the afternoon to complete. The views continued to be astounding, and we looked down at several more homesteads far below us on the valley floor. It amazes me so much that people continue to live and thrive in these environments.



Then, at last, we reached the shores of the lake. I have seen some amazing alpine lakes over the course of my adventures, but this one may take the cake. The distinctive cyan coloration of the water, the rose pink soil on the shores, plus the towering mountains surrounding it make for a scene that is truly unforgettable, and can only be accurately documented from an aerial perspective. I sent up the drone and watched the screen in awe as I began to realize the true scale of this place.




The day concluded in the dining tent once again, as we shared a meal together and had some deep, meaningful conversations centered around the stories in our lives. In this moment, another one of my goals for the trip began to reach fulfillment, building community in my own team through intentional conversations about story. It was all coming together.


To conclude the segment on day 3, here's some highly entertaining photos from dinner that night. Safe to say we were enjoying ourselves quite a bit.



 

Day 3


I awoke on the 3rd day with one thought on my mind. I had to jump in the lake. I had to. Weather had stopped me last time, and who knows next time I was going to be here, if ever. Jumping in cold lakes is one of my favorite things in the world, despite how uncomfortable it is. So, recovering food poisoning victim or not, I was jumping in this lake. However, having some semblance of sanity, I was going at least wait until the sun was up so I wouldn't actually freeze to death. I woke up early to see sunrise over the lake, and it was absolutely gorgeous, as expected.



After breakfast, I walked to the opposite side that was in the sun already and after some mental preparation, I stripped down and dove in. I tried to convince others to join me, but given that they were all comfortable in their down jackets, my efforts were declined. Understandable.



How was my form?


With that done, it was time to start hiking again, this time to the highpoint of our trek, a mountain pass that sits over 15,000 feet. The trail rises up steadily from the lake as it makes it's way up yet another valley. Up here, the terrain changed again. The grass was shorter and more sparse, the ground rockier, and the mountains around us felt much closer. It wasn't long before the clouds broke enough to reveal the glaciers on the slopes of the huge mountains above us.



We continued on, higher and higher, until finally, the horizon leveled and we stood at the top of the pass. On my previous journey to the area, we'd been completely socked in with clouds and couldn't see a thing. This time was different. It was a remarkable landscape, with mountains in all directions, along with grassy fields and red soil sprawled out in front of us. Towering above us was a mountain whose summit likely brushed 18,000 feet. And here we were, in the midst of all of it. It was a place worthy of a good, long break to take it all in.


Joey decided this was a necessary backflip spot as well. I agreed wholeheartedly.






Our horse guides and horses, who did the vast majority of the legwork and heavy lifting to make this trip possible, we were incredibly thankful for them:





Team pic at the summit (guess I missed the color scheme memo, whoops):




We continued on down the other side of the pass and the views continued to be completely out of this world and beyond everything I could've imagined. Sharp, magnificent peaks of dark stone rose high into the sky, covered in glacial ice and swirling with clouds. Below, their slopes, miles of grassy meadows sloped over rolling hills all the way until they met the ground we walked on.


I was filled with so much of that child-like joy. I had some epic music playing in my headphones and I practically ran down the trail, well beyond stoked at this point and feeling fully, completely alive. It was a far cry from the broken, sickly state I was in just a few days before.



We covered many miles that afternoon, and eventually began to descend again, ever closer to the end of the trek. That afternoon, we walked into our campsite, a homestead by a stream just a short walk from some old Inca ruins. We all had some time to relax for a while, but ended up spending most of the time before dinner playing hide and seek in the ruins. There were plenty of jump-scares. It was hilarious.

 

Days 4 & 5


The hike out to the end of the trail is primarily on the Inca Trail, so we went from solitude to being practically surrounded by tourists in a short amount of time. Not ideal for us, but it was time to head back. The bonus was that we were able to spend the whole day with mostly unobstructed views of Nevado Veronica, the mountain we'd seen in the distance during that sunset on day one.



At the end of the trail, we rested, ate lunch, and got back in the van to drive back to Ollantaytambo, where we would hop on the train to Aguas Calientes, the town that grants access to Machu Picchu, one final stop before our trip home. It was wild to realize this journey was reaching it's conclusion.


We spent the evening exploring the town and sharing dinner together at a local restaurant. My stomach still didn't feel great, so I turned in early while the rest of the guys hung out in town.

 

Our alarms rang early the next morning, calling us to the finale of our adventure. We dragged ourselves out of bed and met Rafael after a quick breakfast. We hopped on a bus and drove to the entrance of Machu Picchu.


Machu Picchu has some truly astounding history around it and it has most certainly earned it's title of "wonder of the world." As we hiked up though, we found ourselves completely engulfed in fog. Standing at the viewpoint, it was unclear if the clouds would break and allow us to see the iconic view. But then, as the sun began to crest over the mountains, the fog cleared, and revealed one of the most mystifying and magical scenes I have ever had the honor to witness.




This place is well-deserving of it's reputation. Rafael took us on a tour of the whole city and told us stories of the history, the architecture, and the craftsmanship of this once-lost city. It's difficult to comprehend just how immense the scale of this place is, and the work that went into it to build it into what it is.


With our tour completed, it was time to make the journey back to Cusco, and prepare for the journey home.

 

At the beginning of part one, I told you about the question I was asking myself, and seeking an answer to.


"How can you take your love for adventure, your heart for people, and your desire to build community and create an experience that allows it all to come together at once?"


This trip to Peru was, in a way, a grand experiment for me. To see if it was truly possible to combine all of those aspects together into one cohesive experience. My conclusion? Yes. It is indeed possible. We spent time with the local community and had a chance to make a genuine difference in the lives of their children (read part 1 to learn more about this), we went on an epic mountain adventure to learn about and explore the landscape those people call home, and we had meaningful conversations among our own team that moved us all towards growth.


To say this experience was a dream come true for me is a bit of an understatement. It was the culmination of everything I've been working towards for the past few years of my life. And the best part is that this is just the beginning. I am beyond excited, and more than a little nervous for the road ahead. It's going to be an absolutely wild life.

 

Thank you so much for giving this story your time. I hope that the words and images together inspired you towards exploring more of your story, and wondering what difference you can bring to the world with the talents and gifts you've been given. As you've read my story, I hope you feel encouraged to more deeply explore your own.


See you all soon.


- Zach




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